Are you looking for a great place to get away from the masses of people? Spending time out in nature provides health benefits with exercise and in general allowing your mind to relax away from digital devices and distractions of the busy city life. A great destination within reach of the USA east coast is Letchworth State Park
The Letchworth State Park is located in Wyoming and Livingston Counties in New York. It is roughly 17 miles long. The park follows the course of the Genesee River that flows north through a deep gorge and over massive waterfalls. It is 60 miles southeast of Buffalo and 35 miles southwest of Rochester. The Letchwork State Park spans the towns of Portage, Mount Morris, and Leicester in Livingston County; as well as Genesee Falls and Castile in Wyoming County. In 1907, the 1000-acre estate was bequeathed to the State of New York. The property became the core of Letchworth State Park. The Lower, Middle, and Upper Falls are prominently featured on the Genesee River.
The river flows in a deep gorge winding through the park. The exposed bedrock of the canyon is mostly shale, with layers of sandstone and limestone. It dates back to the Devonian Age. The rock is part of an ancient inland sea that holds many marine fossils. The Genesee River valley is geologically very young. It was caused by a river diversion from the old valley by a continental glacier that forced the river to make a new valley section.
Grand Canyon of the East
It is often referred to as the ‘Grand Canyon of the East.’ The land around the canyon was called Sehgahunda by the Seneca. It means ‘Vale of three falls.’ The park is among the most magnificent scenic regions in the eastern United States. Park entrances are near Portageville, Castile, Perry, and Mount Morris. A paved road having two or three lanes follows along the gorge west side that allows scenic viewpoints of the geologic features. In 2015, Letchworth State Park was voted Best in the Nation. When Letchworth State Park won the Best State Park in the U.S. from USA Today’s Readers’ Choice, it competed with 19 other parks. There are over 6000 parks in the United States.
Waterfalls in Letchworth State Park
The three major waterfalls roar through the Genesee River gorge. In some places, the waterfalls are 600 feet high. The walls narrow to 400 feet. Lush forests surround them. There are approximately 66 miles of trails for hiking to choose from. The major falls are located in the park’s southern section called Portage Canyon. A single trail that bridges the Genesee River crosses a stone bridge below the Lower Falls.
Highest among the falls is the Middle Falls. The Middle Falls, called Ska-ga-dee, was believed to be such a wonder it caused the sun to stop in the middle of the day.
There is an active trestle that crosses above the Upper Falls. Besides the three massive waterfalls, there are perhaps 50 waterfalls on tributaries that flow into the Genesee River.
One of the falls located on a tributary is Inspiration Falls. It is a ribbon waterfall situated 0.4 miles west of the visitor center in the park. The total drop of the falls is 350 feet. It is seasonal. At times, it appears only as a water stain. Inspirational Falls faces the south-southwest. It has a crest of one foot in width.
Portage Viaduct Bridge
Within view of the Upper Falls, there is the iron railroad bridge, the Portage Viaduct, located upstream. The bridge is 240 feet high and 820 feet long. Walking on the bridge is considered trespassing. The warning signs are commonly disregarded by visitors who want to view the gorge from the structure. Walking on an active railroad bridge has safety concerns. Rumor has it that the Portage Viaduct was used in a scene in the movie, Stand By Me. The truth of the matter is the Lake Britton Bridge near Redding, California was used.
A map of Letchworth State Park can also be downloaded from here.
Activities in Letchworth State Park
The trails are available for cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, biking, and horseback riding. Letchworth State Park has so much to offer.
- Hot air ballooning
- Swimming pool
- Whitewater rafting
- Summer lecture series
- Guided Walks
- Performing art programs
A hot air balloon trip is an unforgettable experience. Hunting deer and wild turkey is permitted in season with proper permits. The winter activities include, cross-country skiing, and snow tubing. During the winter, there are also horse-drawn sleigh rides.
There are winterized cabins, as well as trailer and tent campsites for campers to use. Group facilities are also available. There are overnight accommodations available at the historic Glen Iris Inn which has been completely restored. It offers in-season meals. Breakfast lunch and dinner are served. Catering and banquet services are available for special events.
More Recent Attractions
Mount Morris Dam
The Mount Morris Dam is constructed on the northern section of the park. Construction began in 1948 under the Flood Control Act of 1944 by the United States Corps of Engineers. It was completed in 1954. Immediately, the Genesee River became deeper and broader upstream. Areas downstream were spared the annual flooding that destroyed farmland. The dam is the most substantial device of its kind used for flood control east of the Mississippi. It rises 230 feet from the riverbed and is 1028 feet in length. During the flood of 1972, the Morris Dam proved its worth. The city of Rochester and thousands of farmland acres were saved from flooding. In November of 2011, Norfolk Railway announced Portage Viaduct demolition plans that included building a new bridge about 75 feet south of the structure. The State of New York was offered the old bridge. Lack of funds caused the state to decline the offer. The arch design has been approved for the bridge replacement. The estimated cost was $7.1 million. Construction was anticipated to begin in 2015. The completion is scheduled for early 2018.
Eric Humphrey Nature Center
In 2016, the Eric Humphrey Nature Center opened and New York State operates it year-round. It is a 5000-square-foot sustainable building that features
- Connections to various trails
- A butterfly garden
- A research lab
- Meeting rooms
Letchworth Conference Center
The Conference Center cannot be beaten for training and educational needs or organizational and professional retreats. It is a facility located in the southwest portion of the park. The center has a kitchen, bathrooms with showers, bedrooms, and a spacious country lodge room. The historic, unique structure is meant to accommodate low impact needs of organizational and professional groups for retreats, training, and educational purposes. The facility can be rented for use overnight, during the day, or both. It is the ideal place for a business retreat. As a general rule, the center is not meant for family camping overnight. However, some family type rentals may be allowed. The Park Office can help book a family gathering at the center or help find a site that best suits your needs.
Maple Wood Lodge
The Maple Wood Lodge is located in the middle of the park. It is suggested for family type vacation rental. Entrance is gained through the Highbanks Camping Area. Snowmobilers find the connection to the NYS snowmobile trail system to be ideal. As many as eight people can sleep in the facility. Included in the accommodations are a first-floor bathroom with a shower, formal dining room, VCR and TV, living room having a working fireplace, and a furnished kitchen. The first floor also has one small bedroom. A powder room and two bedrooms are on the second level. Guests have to supply their linen.
History of Letchworth State Park
Ron Ballinger is the Castile Historical Society President. He has collected old photographs and information about the area. Ballinger is considered to be an expert. In the 1800s, the land that once belonged to Seneca Native Americans was turned into farmland. The area known as Letchworth State Park was not always in the existing condition. It evolved mostly through the efforts of William Pryor Letchworth. He bought the part of what became the park in the 1800s.
It had a canal that was built between 1837 and 1852. The channel ran from the Allegheny River to Rochester. Boating from Rochester was permitted first to the Allegheny. The current train trestle, located on the gorge Eastside, was the canal area. The canal closed in 1878 when the railroad acquired the property. The Erie Railroad Company started construction of a wooden trestle bridge above the Upper Falls of the Genesee River. It opened August 16, 1852. The original train trestle dominated the view of the gorge. The wooden bridge was both the longest and tallest wooden of its kind in the world at the time. That bridge was the first of three. It provided a walking deck.
A serious fire destroyed the bridge in the early morning of May 6, 1875. Only the concrete bridge abutments were left. The Erie Railroad company immediately moved to replace the bridge with one designed of steel and iron.
It began construction on June 8, 1875. The Portage Viaduct was opened for traffic on July 31, 1975. The bridge remained until the 2000s. At that time, today’s train trestle was built. It still incorporates the foundation from the mid-1800s. The bridge remains in use today.
William Pryor Letchworth
William Pryor Letchworth visited the gorge and the falls in 1858.The first purchase was 190 acres near Portage Falls in the following year. Buffalo businessman, Letchworth, was also a Quaker with a viewpoint of doing good for the benefit of society. His religion influenced much of what he did when creating the park. The House that was to become the Glen Iris Inn was purchased in 1859. The purchase of the land halted plans for a hydroelectric dam. The dam would have altered the river flow and diminished flow over the large waterfalls. Letchworth began working on the Glen Iris Estate. The Glen Iris Inn is located overlooking Middle Falls. Mr. Letchworth enlisted the help of William Webster, a famous landscape artist, to design a sparkling fountain, glistening lakes, rustic bridges, roadways and winding paths. Letchworth used Glen Iris as his office and home. A third story was added to the house. William was a life-resident at Glen Iris. The following years were spent expanding landholding in the area. Other tracts of land were eventually purchased. Later, other structures in the park were built. Some were cottages modeled after houses Mr. Letchworth studied in Switzerland.
The Prospect House is an example of his social good. It is now a rental house for park visitors. Letchworth first used the house when kids traveled from Buffalo so that they could see the country and enjoy the outdoors. Catholic nuns cared for and supervised the children at Prospect. Mary Jemison, known as the ‘White Woman of the Genesee River,’ lived much of her life in the area. She was captured when she was 12 years old, during the French and Indian War, by a Shawnee and French raiding party. A family of Seneca people adopted her. The American Revolution forced the Seneca people from their homeland because they were allies of the defeated British. The family eventually lived on the Genesee River in western New York Mary Jemison became thoroughly assimilated and made a choice to live with the Seneca. Mary had two successive husbands and seven children in all.
Letchworth felt her remains should be interred on the grounds. Jemison’s remains were exhumed from the Buffalo Creek Reservation. The burial occurred around 1874. There was a statue made later that Mr. Letchworth insisted be a model of a young Irish girl. The depiction represented Mary Jemison before being brought into her tribe.
Native American History
Native American culture and history were fascinating to William he helped preserve the heritage. Due his efforts, Letchworth was given the Indian name, Hai-wa-ye-is-tah. Its translation meant the Indians appreciated that he was doing right thing. He began collecting Native artifacts. An Indian museum was created. The museum focuses on the cultural and natural history. Many objects currently in the park museum came from his collection. It contains Seneca nation archaeological artifacts and displays of William Pryor Letchworth, the Genesee Valley Canal, early pioneers, and Mary Jemison. From other locations, buildings at the Council grounds were brought on site one piece at a time. Letchworth believed it belonged to the park. Log by log, it was taken apart. The logs were marked and moved to the current site. They were reassembled with the help of a Native American. Letchworth preserved the land for future generations.
The land was deeded to the State of New York in 1907. Mr. Letchworth gave the Glen Iris and 1000 acres that surrounded it to the State of New York to keep commercial business from causing damage to the woodlands and forge fragile nature. The grant included the stipulation that the American Scenic and the Historic Preservation Society manage the park. The president of New York’s American Scenic and Preservation Society, George F. Kuntz, was an enthusiastic supporter.
In 1907, Kuntz stated his desire to keep together and preserve Letchworth’s donations in a new library. He helped organize and protect William Pryor Letchworth library when the Society began managing the estate. The library contained likely the finest collections of books on charity in the country. It also embraced a selection of a diverse standard literature assortment, books about Indians, and a group of local histories. Letchworth’s testimonials and personal gifts are extremely interesting. In 1910, Kuntz helped with the Mary Jemison memorial. The state developed the land into the 14,350-acre park that was awarded the ‘Best State Park in the U.S.
Letchworth died of a stroke on December 1, 1910 and was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. Letchworth’s niece wrote the words for a plaque near the gorge. In essence, it paid tribute to her uncle for protecting and sharing the land wrought by God as a scene beyond compare with his fellow man. Much of what is seen today was by the workforce of the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps. The corps provided work and job skills for young people during the depression. Letchworth State Park was the beneficiary of a great many enhances that the workers of the Civilian Conservation Corps enacted. During the 1930s, the workers inhabited a large camp in the park. The work included the facilities, stone picnic tables, bridges, and stone wall found throughout the park today.